St. John's Lutheran -- Morgan
The Resurrection of Our Lord -- C
Text: Luke 24:1-11
Subject: The cross
Predicate: is the means of salvation that that leads us to the revealation of salvation in the resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Have you heard the news?
(Insert brief synopsis of outrageous tabloid headline story such as. . .) The United States is being invaded by 500 pound killer bees. Many of them are nearly the size of a cow. The government has hired sharpshooters to hunt the bees down before they get to close to any of our major cities. So far they've killed about 20 of these monster bees in south Texas near the Rio Grande river. A senior scientist from the USDA says no one knows where they came from but they suspect that the bees escaped from a genetics lab connected with the National Univeristy of Mexico. He went on to say, "All that matters now is that we eliminate them before anyone gets hurt or killed."
Some of you look skeptical. Some of you are smiling as if I'm telling you some kind of joke.
But I read all about these killer bees in this "newspaper" that I bought at the grocery store yesterday. They even printed a photo to "prove it." So it has to be true!
Or is it?
You see, some of these tabloid newspapers that you can buy in the grocery store don't have the slightest interest in real journalism. Instead they concoct tales and report legends for entertainment purposes.
A lot of the "stories" in papers like these remind me of the kind of tales and stories we told around the campfire when I worked at a Boy's Club Camp 20 years ago. They were fun to tell, and often scary to listen to. But when the fire died out and we returned to our cabins, everyone knew that there was nothing to worry about since the tales we told were all made up in someone's imagination. //
Now I start my sermon this morning with this illustration of a modern tall tale, because I think it will help us to understand how the news of Jesus' resurrection was first received.
You may not realize it, but when the first reports that Jesus was alive started coming in, the disciple's reaction was kind of like ours when we hear that ELVIS was sighted at a deli in New York.
We all know the first part of the Easter story quite well.
At the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, the women went to the tomb where Jesus was laid in order to finish cleaning and annointing the body for burial. As you remember, their work was cut short on Friday evening because such work was forbidden on the Sabbath.
However, when the women arrived at the tomb, it was readily apparent that something strange had happened.
The stone was rolled away. And when they entered into the cave like grave, they saw that the body of Jesus was gone.
While the pondered what could have happened and where the body of Jesus could be, two men in clothes that gleamed like lightening, suddenly entered the tomb and stood beside them.
With hearts pounding, the women dropped to the ground in fright. And the men shared their message with the women.
It started with a question. "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?"
And it ended with the most sensational proclamation the women had ever heard. "He is not here. Jesus has risen! Remember how he told you that the son of man must be delievered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and on the thrid day will be raised again? Well it has happened! Just as he said it would."
Now somehow, despite the UNBELIEVABILITY of it, the women BELIEVED that the the men in bright apparel were telling the truth.
Somehow, the power of the Holy Spirit was at work within the hearts and minds of the women. They recalled that Jesus had indeed said what the men said he said about rising to a new life after his crucifixion.
And they concluded that it was all true. Jesus kept his promise. The grave could not hold him. The resurrection had occured.
They also knew that this news MUST be spread among Jesus' followers.
So they rushed back to the place where most of the disciples were just getting up to begin the new day. When they arrived, the women burst in through the door and excitedly told the diciples about what they had discovered in the cemetery.
I suspect the women thought the disciples would start jumping for joy when they heard the news. The women were probably even ready to guide the disciples out to the tomb so they could see it for themselves.
But, instead, the disciples shook their heads in disbelief. They thought that the women were babbling a bunch of nonsense. //
Now, if we set aside our "Easter Faith" for a moment, I'm sure we can imagine what the disciples were thinking.
You see, to them the story sounded just like something we might find in the supermarket tabloids. I can see the paper sitting there at the checkout line of the Jerusalem Market, the headlines screaming at us: 500 Pound Killer Bees, Flying Saucers Land in Sobieski, and, Man Rises From Dead After Brutal Execution on Cross.
The disciples porbably wished that the women were telling the truth. After all who among would not want our loved ones to suddenly rise from the dead and return to be with us?
But in real life that just doesn't happen. When we bury our dead, they stay dead and buried. Reports of the dead coming back to life basically fall into one of three categories.
Either the person wasn't really dead. (But we know Jesus was really dead because the solldiers peirced his side, thrusting a spear right into his heart.)
Or secondly, the story is simply a fantasy. (That's what the disciples thought about the women's report.)
Or thirdly, the sense that a dead person has returned to life can be an intense grief reaction.
Quite frequently, grieving people have the sense that the loved one who died is going to walk in through the door at any moment. And sometimes grieving people even think they see the one who died.
For example, a widow may be walking down the street and with a start she thinks she sees her spouse walking toward her. But an instant later she'll realize that it was only because of a similarity to her dead husband that her mind played a trick on her. And the reality and finality of death will sink in once again.
Perhaps one or more of the disciples experienced something like this after the death of their parents or some other close relative. If they had, it would be one more reason not to beleive the report of the women and to dismiss it as wishful thinking.
In the end, all we can say is that the disciples were very practical people. They understood that death means a person is gone forever. And even though Jesus preached about the resurrection, there was no way that they could accept the fact that it had really happened when they first heard the women's tale. //
On Easter Sunday, we gather in our churches to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord. We hear the proclamation, "HE IS RISEN, HE IS RISEN INDEED!" We sing glorious hymns. The choir lifts its collective voice in song singing "HE IS ALIVE!"
And yet at the same time, many of us have a skeptical thought or two lingering in our minds.
For the millions of people who go to church today, the response to the news that Jesus is raised will vary from worship, to amazement, to silence, to curiosity, to confussion, to doubt, to disobedience, to outright unbelief.
Some will even leave worship struggling with inner feelings of guilt because they just can't quite accept the message of the women that Jesus is alive.
Well, for all of us, the Good News of our lesson for today is that we are in fact no different than the disciples.
We may have some doubts and we may be skeptical of the initial report that Jesus is raised from the dead. And it is even even possible that we simply don't believe it.
But don't fear if you are like this, Gad hasn't damned us quite yet. In fact, for the moment those of us who doubt are in good company. Those who are skeptical are in the same class as Peter, and Thomas, and Paul. People who over came their unbelief to become pillars of the early church.
And the good news also is that God will not give up on us in our moments of doubt. God will not condemn us for struggling with the truth of the resurrection.
If he did, then he would have turned his backs on the disciples 2000 yars ago this morning. If he did then the women would have headed off to find someone else to tell their story to.
But instead, God patiently worked according to his graceful plan until the truth took hold in the hearts of the disciples.
The women persisted in their faith that Jesus was alive even in the face of ridicule by the disciples. In doing so they were witnesses to the truth.
And then, in the hours and days ahead, Jesus actually appeared to different followers who in turn also became wittnesses to the the reurrection.
Jesus appeared to Mary in the Garden near the tomb. Jesus walked to Emmaus with Cleopas and another follower.
And eventually, Jesus entered into the locked room where the still disbeleiveing diciples were cowering in fear. He spoke to them. He even let Thomas touch his wounds.
In the end, according to St. Paul, Jesus visited with over 500 people after his resurrection. And they all became wittness to the miracle of Easter.
Today, we hear the reports of these people. And though at first we may be tempted to dismiss them as tabloid news or giref reactions, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the day comes for each of us when we don't reject, but believe.
And our faith in Jesus' resurrection then becomes our hope that we too shall share in his resurrection on the last day.
I pray that each and everyone of us will experience this life transforming faith.
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
2nd Sunday in Advent
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Predicate: is not to avoid the wrath of God, but to prepare for and assume our role in the coming kingdom.
The first preacher in the New Testament kept his message, short and to the point.
"John the Baptist came preaching in the Desert of Judea saying, 'Repent - for the kingdom of heaven is near."
And not long after that, according to the Gospel of Mark, the second preacher in the New Testament was just as succinct and to the point.
For after John was arrested and could preach no longer, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming, "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news." //
Now of course John and Jesus spoke many more words than just these few that I've quoted. But for each of them, almost everything else that they said in their preaching pointed toward, and explained, and amplified their basic message which was: "Repent - for the kingdom of heaven is near."
And most of the rest of their preaching was intended to motivate people to do what they needed to - to repent and prepare for the coming kingdom.
Today in my sermon, I'd like to be just as brief and to the point as John and Jesus were.
For today, their message is the one that we still need to hear.
Today, we too, must repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.
We too must prepare ourselves. We must get ready. Every minute that passes means that we are one minute closer to the full arrival of the Kingdom.
So once again my friends -- REPENT! For the kingdom of heaven is near! //
Now I wish that right now, I could simply say, "AMEN," and sit down to sing a hymn. (And I bet that the confirmation students are thinking, 'Yeah, Pleeeeese sit down Pastor," because it would be the shortest sermon report all year!)
I probably should be able to sit down because the main message I want everyone to hear this morning is the message that we should repent because the kingdom of heaven is near.
And quite frankly, I think that we've heard this message loud and clear this morning, both in the reading of the Gospel, and in the sermon thus far.
But before I leave the pulpit today, I want to talk a bit about why we must repent, and about what true repentance is like. It is easy for the preacher to say "Repent." And its easy for us to say, "Yes, I should repent,"
But what exactly are we going to do? And why are we going to do it?
First of all, "Why should we repent?"
Though all repentance is really a good thing, our faith actually teaches us that there is a right and wrong reason for repenting.
The wrong reason is deceptively compelling.
If you asked a 100 people on the street why they should repent, my guess is that the majority will probably say something to the effect that, "If we repent, then we get to go to heaven."
Or they might put the same reasoning into opposite terms by saying that, "If we don't repent then we will go to hell."
In either case, repentance is seen as a way to escape the wrath of God, and a way to avoid experiencing God's punishment for our sins.
Repentance may also be seen as a way to avoid being "zapped" by God as we live our lives.
There are a lot of people who think that God inflicts specific punishments upon us for the sins that we've committed.
Every pastor I know has counseled with people who are certain that they reason they are sick, or injured, or dying, or that such afflictions have happened to others in their family, is because God is punishing them for some sin they've committed.
People who think like this are in good company. Even the disciples
once asked Jesus, "Who sinned? This man, or his family, that
he was born blind?"
Or, on the other hand, repentance may be seen as a way to invoke God's blessings upon us.
There are lots of people who are certain that the only reason things are going well for them is because they've repented and turned to Jesus.
I've seen this type of person most frequently on the TV religion shows. Typically, they give an enthusiastic witness to their belief that after they found Jesus and repented, then God healed them, or helped them to succeed in business, or brought a broken family back together again.
But my friends, repenting based on the hope that we will be blessed in this life or the next, is not what "true repentance" is all about. Repenting to dodge the wrath of God is NOT why we should repent.
In today's Gospel, notice how harshly John addressed those who came to him with the intention of repenting to save their hide.
"You brood of vipers!" he said, "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath!"
That was John's way of saying, that if you've come to repent just so you can go to heaven, or to be blessed, or to escape punishment, then forget it, because that is not the kind of repentance that God is looking for. One's personal self-interest is not the reason why we should repent.
Luther described this kind of false repentance as "works righteousness." Luther tirelessly taught that there is absolutely nothing that people can do to save themselves. Luther reminded us that the central message of the whole Bible is that, "We are saved by the grace of God alone, and not by the good things that we do."
And that includes our repentance. According to Luther we will not enter heaven by virtue of our repentance.
Now this is kind of tricky to understand. It seems contradictory to say that we must repent, but that we are not saved by our repentance.
Perhaps the best way to think about it is in terms of what comes first and then what comes next.
First comes God's grace. God loved us so much that he sent his son Jesus to die for us to save us.
Then, next comes our grateful response to God's free gift of salvation. And that response can be called repentance.
So, true repentance is a response to what God first did for us. True repentance is our attempt to turn from the darkness of sin and instead live lives that reflect God's love for us and our faith that God has saved us.
True repentance isn't a one time thing either. Luther said we need to repent daily.
For no matter how faithful we are, we all slip and continue to sin. But every time we do, by the power of the Holy Spirit we can pick ourselves up and renew our commitment to God and Jesus.
So this means that every time we say, "NO!" to a temptation that comes our way, we've repented.
Every time we decide to show love or mercy or care to someone in need, we've repented.
Every time we raise our voices in prayer or praise or worship, we've repented.
And every time we thank God for the wonderful gift of his son, we've repented. //
So my friends, "Repent -- for the kingdom of Heaven is near!"
And when you repent, repent the way Jesus wants us to.
Not try to earn some kind of favor from God, but as a grateful response to the blessings and salvation that God has first given us.
And in a way that produces the good fruit that benefits our neighbors, and helps them to see that the kingdom of heaven is drawing near to them too. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
3rd Sunday in Advent
Text: Matthew 11:2-11
Subject: The nature of the Messiah
Predicate: is what God wants it to be (and described in the gospel, "report what you hear and see. . .") and not necessarily what we are expecting.
What are you expecting for Christmas this year?
I 'm sure that everyone has some kind of hopes and dreams that they would like fulfilled at Christmas time.
I know that ALL the kids do. At our house, hardly a day goes by that I don't hear about "This" or "That" that one or both of the kids would like to receive for a Christmas gift.
Adults develop gift expectations at Christmas too. I know I wouldn't have too much trouble putting together a real long list of things I'd like to get for Christmas. It would probably be real expensive too!
But even though gift giving and receiving has become the dominant Christmas tradition in our culture, our Christmas hopes and dreams and expectations are not limited to the wrapped up gifts and presents we'd like to give and receive.
Some people are looking forward to a "perfect" family get together on the holiday. Family members living far away are expected to return home. The dinner is expected to be a delicious feast, cooked to perfection. The time spent together is expected to be filled with fun and warmth and love.
Other people have the expectation that the joy of the holiday will somehow brighten their otherwise darkened lives. For 364 days of the year, the toil and drudgery of daily life goes on and on and on. But Christmas will be different! It will be a time to relax. A time to celebrate. A time when all our wishes come true. At least, that's the expectation some people have.
Still other people experience a longing expectation for some kind of miracle to occur in their lives at Christmas. Some are hoping for their disease to enter into a remission. Some wish that Christmas could once again be the way it used to be. . . back when the kids were young, or when a loved one was alive, or before "the divorce."
Now it is OK for us to have hopes and dreams and expectations. God created us with the ability to visualize the way we would like things to be, and the ability to participated in making our dreams and hopes into reality.
But at the same time, we must temper our expectations against reality. We can hope too hard for the impossible if we are not careful.
Did you see the movie "Christmas Vacation" on TV last Sunday? If you did you'll know what I'm talking about.
If you didn't see the movie, it is about a man who goes way, way overboard in trying to make his family's Christmas "perfect."
Unfortunately, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The lights on the house didn't work. The turkey was over-cooked and dry. The pet cat electrocuted itself chewing on the tree lights. Then the tree burned down.
And on top of all that, the man found out that his boss eliminated the Christmas bonus - after he spent what he was expecting to get!
Now though the events of this movie were presented as comedy, the message was a very serious one.
Our expectations can exceed what is possible. And when they do, disaster, and disappointment is likely to result. //
There is still another thing that must guide our Christmas expectations, this year, and every year. And that is the will of God!
For no matter what WE may expect, at Christmas, or at any other time of the year, we can be certain that one thing we WILL get, WILL be an expression of, or an experience of God's will in our lives.
The only thing is, God's will may be very different from what we are expecting for ourselves.
Our Gospel lesson this morning should help us to understand what I'm saying.
For it is all about a conflict between human expectations and God's will. It is about how God's will, will be done. And it is about how God's will is to give us grace and gifts beyond anything we can imagine for ourselves.
The story in our gospel takes place about half-way through the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is one of four major stories about John the Baptist
In today's story, John the Baptist has been arrested and thrown into prison. His days are numbered for it wouldn't be too long before King Herod's niece Salome danced before the king and was promised anything she asked for.
As you may remember, Salome's mother Herodias (who was the king's sister-in-law whom he wanted to have an affair with) prompted Salome to ask for the head of John on a platter. And Herod was forced to deliver against his will since he made his rash promise in the presence of so many witnesses that his credibility was on the line. //
Now as John was in prison, he was concerned about Jesus. And his main concern was that Jesus was not living up to John's expectations.
Remember what John preached in the desert. "Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near! One is coming after me who is greater than I. One who is so great that I am unworthy to even untie his sandals."
When Jesus came out to John to be baptized, John believed that Jesus was the one who was to come. He took one look at Jesus and said, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." He baptized Jesus, and Jesus went to Galilee to begin his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing.
But after about a year or so, John wasn't so sure about Jesus anymore.
As he looked around, the kingdom of heaven didn't seem any nearer than when he was preaching about it.
At first John began to wonder what Jesus was waiting for. Then he began wondering whether he made a mistake in declaring Jesus to be "the one."
So he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the ONE who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
At first that may sound like a simple enough question. But in fact, John asked his question in a very critical tone of voice.
John expected more than Jesus was delivering. John expected
his vision of what the kingdom of heaven would be like to be Jesus'
vision too. John expected progress. John expected action. And
as far as he could see, not much was happening to bring the kingdom
he expected into being.
Of course Jesus responded to John's concerns.
And he did so in a very simple way. He told the followers of John to, "Go back and report what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and good news is preached to the poor."
In telling the followers of John to report what they saw, Jesus was also linking his ministry to Isaiah's prophecy concerning the Messiah.
In other words, Jesus was saying to John that, "What you expect from me doesn't matter. In fact, what you expect of me may even be wrong or evil."
"What IS important IS that I am doing what God wants me to do! What IS important IS that I am the messiah that God wants me to be!"
John the Baptist wasn't the only one who's expectations were different from the kind of person Jesus turned out to be.
The Pharisees had lots of problems with the kind of person Jesus was too. They simply could not accept the fact that Jesus was the son of God.
When they looked at Jesus they saw a man who "sinned" by healing people and doing other forbidden work on the Sabbath day of rest. And they saw a man who "contaminated" himself by associating with sinful and unclean people like tax collectors, and prostitutes.
Even among the 12 disciples who were closest to Jesus there were some whose expectations differed from what Jesus was really like.
James and John were so certain that the "kingdom of heaven" was to be an earthly, political kingdom that they were vying to see who would be give the most powerful positions among the king's advisors.
And it is believed that Judas Iscariot became so frustrated with the way that Jesus was leading the "revolution" that would establish the kingdom of heaven that he betrayed Jesus, hoping that someone else would take over and make some progress. //
Today I think we need to take a moment to think about our expectations concerning the Messiah Jesus Christ.
For we are often tempted to expect something other than what God delivers. We are often tempted to mold Jesus into what we want him to be instead of what God gives us.
Think about it. God promised to come to be with his people and how did he come? He came in the form of a baby who cried and soiled his diapers just like every other baby that was ever born.
We may expect the birth of the king to happen in the comfort of a palace, but where was the king of the universe born? He was born in a stable where he was wrapped with swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a feed trough full of hay.
We may expect the son of God to rule with power and authority, but instead he rules in weakness and was obedient unto death. His throne was the cross. His crown was made of thorns.
If God consulted with you or I before sending his son we may have suggested that he do things a little bit differently.
But God's will is God's will, and it will be done God's way no matter what we expect.
Our challenge is to be open to God's unique and unexpected way of doing things.
And our challenge is to see and believe that God has in fact given us much more than any of us could have expected. For in the baby, and the cross, and the death and resurrection, we receive the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
Christmas Eve - 1992
Predicate: means God is with us in every aspect of our being, including our death (thus assuring our resurrection.
Thank you to all the children of our Sunday School!
The message you have shared with us this evening is the most important message that anyone can hear.
You told us that one of the names of Jesus is EMMANUEL which means "God with us."
You've told us that the birth of Jesus is the birth of the son of God, so it is true that God came to earth to be WITH his people.
And you've even told us about some of the ways that God can be with US as we live OUR lives today.
But now, before we head for home this evening, I'd like to lift up one of the times that God is with us, for our special consideration. Because I believe that out of all the ways and all the times that God is with us, there is one way and one time that is more important than all the rest put together.
And that is, that God is with us when we die!
God will be with each of US when WE die.
Now you might think that talking about death on Christmas Eve is a good way to dampen the happiness and excitement of the night. You might think that anyone who even thinks about death at time like this is a "bah humbug" type of person - a worse Scrooge than Scrooge himself!
But my friends - if there was no death - there would be no Christmas!
For Christmas is one thing and one thing only - it is the beginning of God's battle against humankind's most powerful enemy. It is the beginning of the end of death.
When Jesus was born, God knew full well what needed to be done. His son would become like us in every respect, and take on the form of a servant, and be obedient unto death so that the bonds of death could be broken forever.
If God did not choose to do this for us, then there would be no hope for any of us. We'd live alone, we'd die alone, and that would be the end of us, forever.
But by God's grace, and through the person of his son Jesus, God is with us as we live, and when we die.
St. Paul said that because we have been baptized we have been united to Jesus and God in a relationship that can never be severed.
"When we live, we live to the Lord. And when we die, we die to the Lord. "
"There is nothing in all creation that can separated us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus. Not even death itself."
And, since we have been united to the Lord Jesus in our life and in our death, the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead means that we shall be united with him in the resurrection to eternal life too.
Later this evening or tomorrow morning, many of us will open a lot of neat Christmas presents. But as neat as they are, and even as expensive as some of them will be, none will be better or more precious, or longer lasting than the Christmas present that God gave us in his Son Emmanuel.
For as we look back upon the first Christmas from the vantage point or Easter morning, we see it all clearly, the birth of the baby Jesus was the death of death. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
Christmas Day 1992
Text: Titus 3:4-7
Predicate: is meaningless with out Easter which is the Main
Event for Christians.
In a recent issue of a pastoral journal there was a cartoon showing people filing out of Church after worship, shaking hands with the pastor at the door. In the background you could see the Christmas tree and other indications that it was Christmas Day.
And in the foreground, one of the parishioners who had just been greeted by the pastor was grumbling to his wife. The caption said, "What a LAZY preacher - every time I come to church he preaches the SAME sermon!"
Well, every pastor who saw that cartoon immediately recognized the complaining parishioner as a C&Eer.
You see, the Christian church is full of people who, for legitimate reasons in some cases, OR for a lack of commitment in others, only manage to find time to come to worship on the two major holidays of the church year - Christmas and Easter.
And I suppose it is possible that some C & E Christians, especially those who are not all that committed to the faith, think that the pastor does preach the same sermon over and over again. Because after all, every time they come to church they hear either the Christmas Story, or the Easter Story.
But to some extent, I guess that is OK. Because Christmas and Easter are like the book ends of our faith.
The story of our salvation begins on Christmas and it climaxes on Easter. And every holiday sermon, whether it is preached on December 25, or April something, and in addition to that, ABSOLUTELY EVERY OTHER sermon preached in-between these two holidays, must convey the glorious good news of God's plan and God's grace.
You know, when you talk about getting back to the basics in the church, this means devoting the best of our time and energy and resources to the simple proclamation of the Gospel.
The church these days gets involved in a lot of important, interesting and worthwhile ministries and projects.
The ELCA supports "hunger appeals" and "advocacy programs," and "multi-cultural awareness efforts," and "human relation associations," and "political reform" in countries around the world.
But as worthwhile as these different projects are, the are NOT the purpose of our church's existence. Our church is NOT merely one of the world's many social service agencies.
Instead, the various good works and relief efforts that we support are our response to the proclamation of the Gospel.
When we've heard the good news and when we that believe that Jesus was born to save us, then our lives can be transformed and our actions focused on things that really express our love for our neighbors.
It is not in order to be saved, but rather, it is because we are saved, that the church can get involved in political and social actions that can help feed the hungry and cloth the naked and give water to the thirsty.
It is because of what God first did for us that we can be peace makers.
It is because God came to be WITH us, and is with us still through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can battle the many evils rampant in our world today. //
Now one thing I do find interesting is that of the two major holidays in the Christian Church, it is Christmas that draws the biggest crowd.
Over the last 5 years, between our Christmas Eve service and worship on Christmas morning, we've seen an average of nearly 475 people pass through our doors each year.
But according to the records I have in the church office, the most we've ever had at Easter is 351 (and that includes the Pastor and Organist at both services!).
After hearing the numbers you might conclude that Christmas is the most important of the two holidays. Perhaps you've even decided to come to worship today because you think that Christmas is the most important.
Or if you look at all of the hoopla and hype that goes on in our culture outside the church, you might draw the same conclusion. No one puts as much effort into celebrating Easter as they do for Christmas. There's no Easter shopping season. Not too many of us send Easter Cards. And when is the last time you put up the Easter tree and Easter lights! //
Well, those of you who have been around for the last 6 Christmases and 5 Easters probably recall that I'm a great one for mixing up the Church Holidays.
One Easter I started my sermon by wishing every one a Merry Christmas!
And this Christmas I want to wish you all a happy Easter! And I want to talk about Easter too. I want us all to know and understand that we WOULD NOT be here today if it were not for EASTER!
If it were not for Easter there would be no Christmas trees and no decorations and no presents and no family get-togethers. If it were not for Easter today would be just another Friday and you'd all be at work, and I have no idea what I'd be doing since it there was no Easter there'd be no church and no pastors either!
"But pastor," you may say, "Christmas is the day that the baby Jesus was born!"
And I say, "Yes it was. But it was also the birthday of baby David, and baby Peter, and baby Saul, and little Zachaeus, and probably 10000 other babies around the world.
"AH, but Baby Jesus was the Son of God," you say.
"Fine. But how do you KNOW he was the son of God?"
Well, you could point to the fact that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But if you read the Bible carefully you'll find that Jesus was not the only baby who was conceived by the power of God or through the intervention of God. Sarah had Isaac when she was over 90 years old. It was certainly the power of God's Holy Spirit that enabled Abraham and Sarah to produce a child. But, their son was not the son of god.
Or, you can point to the angels who announced Jesus birth, first to Mary and Joseph and later to the shepherds..
That's something special -- but Jesus wasn't the only baby whose conception and birth was connected with angels. Angels also announced the coming birth of Isaac -- but he wasn't the son of God.
And the birth of John the Baptist happened in an extraordinary way too. John's father was struck dumb by a vision from God and he couldn't speak until the baby was born and named -- but John wasn't the son of God either.
Or, you could point to the star and the wise men and say, "That must prove that Jesus was the son of God."
But you know what, there are other religions and myths from around the world that tell strangely similar stories about their gods, and founders and leaders.
In the end, none of the extraordinary things that you may select from the Christmas story are sufficient to prove the divinity of Jesus.
Among theologians this is called doing theology from above. It starts with heavenly assumptions and extraordinary events. It sounds good, but it never works. The skeptic can always find a basis to dismiss our claims.
But, if you start with Easter, then every thing fits.
This is called doing theology from below. It means you start with the earthly events that actually happened in Jesus life. It means that you start with the eye witness reports of the people who were actually there - like Jesus' disciples, and the women named Mary who stood by the cross on Friday and who went to the tomb on Sunday morning.
And first and foremost among ALL the events of Jesus life was his passion and his resurrection. The suffering, death on Good Friday, followed by Jesus' rising to new life on the first day of the week.
Now, when the early church was forming, the ONLY holiday that they celebrated was Easter. In fact every single Sunday worship service was an Easter celebration.
And when the gospel of Jesus was told and eventually written down, the FIRST, and most important part of the story to be recorded was the Easter story.
If you look at the four gospels in your Bible , you will see that only two of them have any thing at all to say about Christmas. But all four tell us the Easter Story. In fact, about one half of the total content of the four gospels covers the events and teaching that take place between Palm Sunday and Easter Morning, and the 40 days until the ascension.
So, it is abundantly clear, that Easter is the Main Event.
Christmas may be fun. It may be a time for parties, and pageants, and presents.
But Christmas is NOTHING without Easter.
The main character in a novel that I read recently expressed this with the kind of directness that few of us would be bold enough to display.
In the book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the character Owen Meany said, "Any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas, but Easter is what it's all about -- if you don't believe in the resurrection then you're not a believer! IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE IN EASTER, DON'T KID YOURSELF, DON'T EVEN CALL YOURSELF A CHRISTIAN!"
Not all of us would be so bold and blunt about it. But Owen Meany was telling the truth!
The core of our faith is that Jesus died and was resurrected to save us.
Now it is good to celebrate Christmas, because it marks the beginning of our salvation.
But as you celebrate, remember, it is Easter that gives Christmas its meaning. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
The first Sunday after Christmas
Text: Matthew 2:13-23 (excluding slaughter of innocents)
Predicate: are one way of God inspiring his people to follow his will.
In my sermon a couple of weeks ago, I asked everyone at worship that day, "What are you expecting for Christmas?"
And then we talked a little bit about our Christmas expectations and about the expectations people had 2000 years ago concerning the promised Messiah.
We saw that the expectations we develop on our own may not harmonize with what God has in mind, but in the end God's plan is to give us more love and grace than we could (or should) expect given our sinful nature.
Now today, two days after Christmas I would like to ask all of us a follow-up question.
And that is, "Did your dreams come true this Christmas?"
How each of us answers depends upon the dreams that we had.
I'm sure that some of you kids out there had dreams of receiving certain toys - and you got them! But I know that many of you also asked for certain things that you did not get, and so, some of your Christmas dreams were not fulfilled.
And the same is true for us adults. When the Christmas celebration is over, we know that it will be a mixed bag of "dreams come true" and "dreams unfulfilled." We've been around the block once or twice. We know that even though our dreams worth dreaming, they must be tempered with a dose of reality. Life is such that not every dream comes true.
But there are some dreams that MUST come true.
For the dreams that we have can be neatly divided into two categories. There are OUR dreams. The ones we cook up on our own with our own imaginations and through our own desires.
And, there are GOD'S DREAMS. Dreams that do not originate within our own minds, but rather, dreams that originate in the mind of God, and are sent to us by the power of his Holy Spirit, or through an angel messenger.
Our Gospel lesson this morning is about dreams sent by God. It tells us the story of how God used dreams to make sure that his plan for our salvation would come to pass.
The person who experienced these dreams sent by God was Joseph, Jesus' earthly father. If God hadn't sent these dreams, God's whole plan might have run aground.
In all, Joseph had four dreams. The first one occurred before the birth of Jesus. According to the Bible it came immediately after he had discovered that the woman he was engaged to was pregnant by someone else.
At first Joseph resolved to quietly divorce Mary so as not to bring too much disgrace upon her, or himself.
But the night before he was to break off the engagement, he had a dream. An angel appeared to him and said that he should take Mary as his wife because the unexpected pregnancy was really the work of God.
Now if I had a dream like that, I'd probably wake up the next morning wondering if the pepperoni pizza I ate before bed was responsible.
But the dream sent by God was so powerful and convincing that Joseph believed it really was a message from God, and he followed through on his original plan, and took Mary as his wife, even though she was "pregnant at the altar."
Then, not long after Jesus was born, Joseph had another dream. An angel appeared to Joseph and told him to flee to Egypt with Jesus because Herod was planning to kill the child.
Here too I'm sure that Joseph was perplexed about what was going on. Why would the king want to search for HIS newborn son to kill him? Remember, Joseph and his family did not appear to be a "threat" to Herod. He was a carpenter. He built things like tables and chairs and crates and houses.
But once again, the dream sent by God was so powerful and convincing that Joseph believed that God was sending him instructions. And he packed up that very night, and headed off for Egypt with Jesus and Mary.
A few years later, King Herod died. And the angel returned in yet another dream telling Joseph that all was safe and he could return to Israel.
By now I suspect that Joseph was getting used to his occasional dream messages. And he had no doubt heard about the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem shortly after his flight to Egypt. So he knew that his last dream had saved Jesus' life.
And now he believed that it was safe to return. So he got up and took Jesus and Mary back to Israel.
When he got there he wondered if his return might not have been a bit premature. When he heard that Herod's son Archelaus was now on the throne he was afraid. And God sent one last dream message telling Joseph to head further north to settle down in the region of Galilee in a town called Nazareth.
Now a couple of things happened when each of these dreams prompted Joseph into action.
First: Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled. One prophecy said that God's son would come up out of Egypt. Another said that the Messiah will be called a Nazarene. Each of these came true in as the events after Jesus' birth unfolded.
But the prophecies that were fulfilled were relatively minor ones. Had they not come true I suspect no one would have noticed. What is important though is the second of the things that happened as God sent these dreams to Joseph.
And that is, God's plan for our salvation was kept on course. God cares for his people. God desires that we all have the opportunity to believe and be saved. And God will take extraordinary measures to insure that his will, will be done!
The dreams that Joseph had were not actually about saving the life of his newborn son, even though that was the immediate result.
Ultimately, his dreams were about the salvation of the whole human race.
Had he ignored them, Jesus would not have survived past his toddler years. Had he ignored them, God's plan would have failed.
Today we can give thanks to God for sending these dreams to Joseph. And we can give thanks that Joseph heard and responded to them.
And we can also think about the ways in which God might choose to speak to us too.
I firmly believe that God still calls us in many different ways, including dreams and visions.
The thousands of people who serve the Christian Church as pastors are some who have a first had experience with hearing the call of God. Every pastor has his or her own story about how they came to hear the call to the ministry.
Personally, my sense of being called to ministry came through the comments and suggestions of other people, including some of my pastors.
But I know that several of my classmates first heard their call through dreams and visions.
And I believe that in the future God will speak to many more people, including some of you.
I don't know what your call will be. Perhaps some of you will become pastors. Or maybe God wants you to serve in the life of this congregation. Maybe as a Sunday school teacher? Or a council member? Or an officer of the congregation?
But what ever we are called to do, may the power of the Spirit help us to hear the call and respond, "YES Lord!"
Just as Joseph immediately responded to the instructions in his dreams, may we immediately respond to the Lord's will for us. AMEN!
St. John's Lutheran - Morgan
5th Sunday After Epiphany
Text: 1 Cor. 2:1-5
Subject: The Word of God
Predicate: is found in Christ crucified and not eloquent speech,
logical thinking, nor crafty debate.
Back in 1983 during the first year of my seminary studies, all first year students were required to take a one credit, once a week class, that was intended to help us sharpen our understanding of what is means to be called to be a pastor.
One of the first things we did during the class was to go around the room and tell our personal story about how we first heard the call to the ministry, and how we eventually reached the point where we decided to enroll in the seminary.
When we told our stories we discovered that we had a lot in common. At one point or another in our lives, absolutely everyone in the class had received the direct encouragement of their pastor to consider entering the ministry.
But we discovered that everyone had a unique story to tell too. Some were PK's (that is - a Pastor's Kid) who grew up close to the ministry. As I recall, one student was the fourth generation of his family to enter the ministry.
Another student was motivated by the tremendous needs of the people he observed in the city where he lived. Several others were literally touched by the Word and Spirit of God through reading and studying the Bible.
But not everyone experienced the call in a serious or Spiritual way. One student reported that she "played church" with all her dolls and stuffed animals when she was a child.
And one young man said that someone told him that he should become a preacher because he had a "good voice" and was very talented in public speaking.
Now I remembered all these stories today because when I was studying the text from 1 Corinthians this week, the last one, the story of the young man with the good voice, immediately popped up from the depths of my memory.
And what I remember most about my fellow student's story is that even though someone else thought because he was a good speaker he should be a pastor, he did not think that his speaking ability was a proper reason for entering the ministry.
As we discussed what God is looking for in pastors, the entire class readily agreed that a velvety pulpit tone, and impeccable diction, and superior wisdom, and a captivating presence in the pulpit, ARE NOT at the top of God's job description for preachers.
To discover the truth of this all you have to do is open your Bible and start reading about some of the people God called to positions of leadership.
Take Moses for example.
God blessed Moses with leadership qualities galore, but Moses was reluctant to use them. When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, Moses tried his best avoid the job of leading the Israelites to the promised land.
"Who am I that I should do this," Moses asked God?
"Don't worry I'll be with you," God replied.
"But who are you?" Moses shot back. "I don't even know your name!"
"Tell the people 'I AM' has sent me," God answered.
"But they won't believe ME," Moses whined in response.
And God said, "Well then, perform some miraculous signs for them. Your rod will turn into a serpent when you cast it on the ground, and your hand will turn as white as snow when you place it under your cloak, and if they don't believe the first two signs, then pour river water on the sand and it will turn to blood."
Moses continued to seek a way out of the job and he played his last card. "But God," Moses said, "I am not eloquent. Neither before, nor now that your have called me. I am slow of speech and tongue."
Now we don't know exactly what Moses' speech impediment was. Perhaps he stuttered. Perhaps his speech was punctuated by long pauses as he struggled to get the next word out.
But we do know that his speech problems were of no concern
to God. God chose
Moses. God called Moses. And God was going to have Moses no matter what.
So in exasperation God put his foot down and angrily said "If don't think you can speak then your brother Aaron can stand in for you. BUT MOSES, YOU WILL BE THE LEADER. You will put the words in Aaron's mouth. But remember, I will be with your mouth, and Aaron' mouth and will teach what you shall do." //
Another good example of God's lack of concern for a preacher's speaking ability is seen in the call of Jeremiah.
We do not know the exact age of Jeremiah when God called him, but he was probably no more than 15 or 16 years old. For when the Lord told Jeremiah that he was called and appointed to be a prophet, Jeremiah immediately responded by saying, "Ah Lord God! Behold, I do NOT know how to speak, for I am only a youth."
And God replied, "Do not be afraid. Go where I send you and I will give you the words to speak. Behold, I have put MY words in YOUR mouth.." //
Now, these stories about Moses and Jeremiah are not to say that they were blubbering idiots. Nor is it to say that they were nothing more than ventriloquist dummies. Nor is it to say that God will take any old warm body who is willing to step into the pulpit to preach his word.
But it is to say that eloquence is not God's top priority.
All God really wants is that the plain and simple content of his message is communicated to those who listen to the speaker.
And ultimately, effective witness, effective communication, effective proclamation of the gospel, rests with the power of God, and not in the wisdom and eloquence of the human speaker.
St. Paul knew this.
But some of the people in the church at Corinth didn't.
From time to time they had the opportunity to hear visiting preachers in their church. And from what we know, some of the visiting preachers were dynamic speakers who gave an interesting and persuasive sermon.
But unfortunately, a few of these top notch orators were heretics. That is, they preached false doctrine. And they used their rhetorical skills to seduce their listeners away from the Biblical truth that Paul and the other faithful pastors proclaimed.
The most threatening of the early heretics were the Judiazers. You've heard me talk about them in other sermons. They believed that before one could be a Christian one had to become a Jew. And they used all of the persuasive skill they could muster to convince people that they were telling the truth.
"But don't be taken in by them and their fast talking and enticing logic," Paul warned them (and us). "Instead, judge every message by the plain and simple Gospel that God wants us to hear. And that is - Jesus Christ and him crucified."
Today there is a lot of discussion going on about how the church can be more effective in reaching out to the unchurched people of the world.
Some people think that evangelism should be approached with a business like sense of marketing.
As a result, in our country, a whole crop of congregations has sprung up, that put an emphasis on delivering an exciting Sunday morning experience that will be attractive to people who don't attend church. Professional orchestras and singers provide soul stirring music. Audio visuals dazzle the eye. A perfectly groomed preacher delivers a message that has been carefully written to minimizes the number of Biblical or theological references that might confuse or offend the people in attendance.
Ironically, the fastest growing Lutheran church in the United States has bought into this style of ministry. The pastor created quite a stir a couple of years ago when he claimed that what he was doing should be called "entertainment evangelism."
Now no one in the church is against making worship an enjoyable experience.
The days are long gone when worship meant sitting in rigid silence for an hour or longer. Pastors are no longer taught that they dishonor the Word of God if they preach less than forty-five minutes. The famous theologian who taught that sermons should be read with a flat mono-tone voice so that the personality of the preacher doesn't interfere with the gospel message is pretty much disregarded today.
We want there to be movement and joy in worship. Preachers have learned that being short and to the point is the most effective way to communicate. Pastors know that nothing is gained by concealing their personality in the pulpit.
Here at Morgan we believe that a variety of music and worship styles are helpful in encouraging people to come to church. And I try to be who I am in everything I do, including my preaching.
But no matter what we do, no matter how we worship, no matter what my preaching style is, our priorities must be kept straight. We must not be seduced by style over substance.
First and foremost the word of God must be preached in its truth and purity.
And that word of God is, as St. Paul wrote, nothing more and nothing less than "Jesus Christ and him crucified."
Jesus Christ lived, taught, suffered, died on the cross and was resurrected to bring forgiveness and salvation to all people.
And this is the one and only message that the church is supposed to proclaim.
And it is the one and only criteria against which we are to evaluate our ministry.
If what we do as a congregation proclaims this good news, and if what we do as individuals proclaims this good news, and in as much as the things we do (both congregationally and individually) SUPPORT this proclamation, then we are being faithful to our calling.
And the Spirit will be at work through our ministry helping those who hear to believe. AMEN!